Older Americans Impacting the Economy

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 25, 2016

Sometime in your life you might have heard this comment — older people are a drain on the economy. A newly released AARP report shatters this myth once and for all by detailing a rise in spending and workforce contributions of aging baby boomers.

AARP’s 28 page report, The Longevity Economy: How People Over 50 Are Driving Economic and Social Value in the US, takes a hard look at how our nation’s population of 111 million 50-plus consumers impacts the economy.

According to this report, released on September 20, the 50-plus age groups generates a whopping $7.6 trillion in economic activity (a $500 billion increase from 2013), including $5 trillion in consumer spending by people 50-plus. The researchers say the increases reflects the nation’s shifting demographic and spending patterns of this group due to longer life spans and prolonged employment.

Older Adults a Powerful Economic Force

The 50-plus cohort represents a powerful force that drives economic activity and the growth of this age group and has a transformative impact on the nation’s products and services.

According to the report, produced by Oxford Economics for AARP, members of the Longevity Economy are employed longer and making contributions within the workforce. In addition, the economic activity that comprises the Longevity Economy generates $1.8 trillion in federal, state and local taxes. As older people extend their work lives, they are fueling economic growth past the traditional retirement age of 65 as well as combating myths about how aging affects the economy.

“As the 50-plus demographic continues to grow, the market opportunities are too large to ignore,” said Jody Holtzman, senior vice president of market innovation, AARP. “With those in the ‘longevity economy’ wanting to maintain independence, employment and health for as long as possible, opportunities abound for companies to develop products and services to meet the demand. This report offers a strong roadmap for companies to address the needs of the 50-plus population.”

Look for the nation’s Longevity Economy to be more ethnically diverse. The report notes that by 2050, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other non-white groups will make up 45 percent of the 50-plus population, compared with 26 percent in 2015. Demographic changes will influence the types of goods and services that the 50-plus population consumes and invests in, say the researchers.

Aging baby boomers and seniors will be a “contributing force” in the workplace and heavily into entrepreneurship. The report’s findings indicated that people age 50-plus are working longer, earning wages, spending more money, generating tax revenue, and producing economic value for an extended period of time. Those aged 55-64 have had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in the nation and over the last 10 years and one in three US businesses in that timeframe was started by an entrepreneur aged 50 or older.

The report’s findings pierces the long-held stereotypes that as one ages they become less productive, not as quick and agile when compared to younger employees. Researchers say while these observations may be true in some occupations, however, the report’s data suggests that in many instances productivity may increase in your later years. This may occur because older workers who are more highly educated are employed in more knowledge-based professions and less physically active ones.

Researchers observed that the Longevity Economy supported job sustainability. The AARP report found that in 2015 alone, nationwide spending by people aged 50 supported more than 89.4 million jobs and more than $4.7 trillion in the nation’s labor income — 61 percent of all U.S. jobs and 43 percent of labor income was related to this groups’ spending, impacting health services and education.

Meanwhile, the AARP report notes that The 50-plus population has a strong desire to stay independent and active while they age, resulting in businesses developing new technologies – such as remote monitoring, smartphone apps and ambient computing – that cater to them.

Finally, the AARP report found that baby boomers are not stingy. They donate at a larger rate than younger generations, with 80 percent of those 65-plus giving to charity in 2015. When not working boomers spend a lot of their time volunteering, too – individuals 55-64 spend 128 hours per year while those 65-plus spend 133 hours per year. In addition, 83 percent of the nation’s household wealth is held by those over 50 years old, say researchers.

In the Ocean State…

“In Rhode Island, we know that the 50+ population is an economic driver,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “On the younger end, the demographic represents key leaders in business, education and government. Sometimes it seems as if the ‘young innovators’ get all the press, but this core of established, successful and still quite energetic Rhode Islanders is undeniable. At the other end of the spectrum, $2.9 billion dollars in Social Security benefits are paid out to Rhode Islanders and a large portion of that spending is here in the state. Total economic output is estimated at $4.98 billion. People also would be surprised to know that Rhode Islanders 65 and older comprise 18 percent of the workforce.

“They are caregivers and philanthropists as well,” Connell added. “And their volunteer service is valued at $148 million a year. However, this is not to deny that many older people have real and pressing needs. That will grow as a percentage of the state’s population and we need to plan for those realities.

“Younger entrepreneurs are important to the state’s future,” Connell concluded. “But the brightest, in my opinion, recognize the 50+ population as both a market and a resource. Many are tapping the generation that came before them as an advantage as they grow their own successes. We want to see more of that. It’s a win-win we can’t pass up.”

It is no surprise to economist Ed Mazze that consumers age 50-plus are the most important demographic group for businesses to target. He says there are over 120 million people in this group (the baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and the Silent Generation (born from 1925 through 1945).

Mazze, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Rhode Island, notes that boomers are willing to spend on technology, use social media, purchase online and represent a good market for many luxury products. “Many new products have been created for the Silent Generation in areas of food and pharmaceuticals and other products have been redesigned and reengineered such as appliances, automobiles and furniture for ease of operation,” he says.

“There are many in both markets still willing to pay full price for the products and services they buy if they feel they are getting full value for these purchases. These are two important consumer market segments that should not be neglected,” adds Mazze.

Experienced Workers to Seek Greener Pastures in 2016

Published in the Pawtuket Times on January 25, 2016

In 2016, you can likely expect to see an increasing number of experienced workers seeking new employment. According to the recently released AARP survey, making “more money” was the key motivator for 74 percent of the survey respondents.

“The economy may be doing better these days,” said AARP Senior Vice President Jean Setzfand. “But a lot of workers are still worried about their paychecks. While our survey, which included many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, found most people looking want more money, we also found a wide variety of reasons for their job search rationale.”

Looking for Greener Pastures

The “Experience in Work” survey (with its findings detailed in a 47 page report released this ), conducted for AARP’s new career website, aarp.org/work, finds that of the approximately 4 in ten inclined to seek new work this year, 23% are either extremely or very likely to try to find a new job this year, and another 16% say that they are somewhat likely to job-seek during that period.

Researchers say that respondents, ages 35 to 64, cite career growth potential (21%), better work flexibility (25%), more enjoyable work (30%), as well as better health benefits (28%) as reasons they plan to seek new employment this year.

Added Setzfand: “Things are so fluid that many of those likely to switch jobs this year say they do not expect to stay in the same industry. An even larger group of job searchers do not know what type of business they will end up in at all.”

The 10-minute, online, unbranded survey (a nationally represented sample of 1,291) conducted by Phi Power Communications, Inc., found that that experienced workers who are already looking for a new job say the tools most commonly used in their search are online listings (62%), personal contacts (40%), and company career listings (33%).

Most of those surveyed (62%) are currently employed, and a solid majority (66%) have been in the same job for at least five years, pointing up the need for likely job seekers to update their skills.

Meanwhile, experienced workers are willing to take the leap outside of their job sector. A quarter (24%) of those likely to switch companies say that they do not expect to remain in the same industry. An even larger percentage (42%) do not even know what type of business they will end up in.

But, finding new a new job is not a piece of cake. Age discrimination (42%) is listed as the biggest obstacle to gaining a new higher paying job, followed by “not being offered enough money” (37%), a poor regional or local labor market (24 %) and “lack of availability of full-time jobs with benefits” (23%).

According to Kathleen Connell, AARP Rhode Island State Director, the survey findings capture how older workers value their job experience. “They see career growth continuing at 50 rather than experiencing a decline in their value to employers; they believe they bring experience and knowledge to the table that can be leveraged to find flexibility that meets their financial needs and lifestyles; and many, for the first time, may be doing the math and realizing how much health benefits play a factor in their overall compensation,” she says.

While the survey respondent’s attitude reflected in this AARP phone survey seem obvious at age 50, Connell believes that many workers now think this way as they turn sixty years old and they anticipate another decade or more of full-time employment.

Connell adds, “Conversely, one can infer that people are insecure in a fragile economy and a culture of mergers and acquisitions that result in the arbitrary elimination of jobs. So, career flexibility is a means of adapting, if necessary. In Rhode Island, our scale makes it difficult for most people to easily replace a lost job. And therefore, people in their 50s may be looking to advance to new job possibilities before they hear footsteps.

“Still, what the survey may show most clearly is that older workers are looking for a bigger paycheck in order keep pace with inflation and, hopefully, to save more for retirement,” says Connell.

The Secret to Keeping Employee’s satisfied

Edward M. Mazze, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration at The University of Rhode Island, sees the New England region and the Ocean States Economy slowly improving. Businesses are hiring employees with specific skills, to replace individuals that have either retired or left for new job opportunities, he says, adding that a company’s growth and new technology also create the need to expand and hire new employees.

“The needed skill set and knowledge base for many jobs have changed as a result of the way businesses compete in today’s market-place. Individuals with experience and a willingness to continue to learn will find jobs because they add value to their organizations, adds Mazze.

“Employees are an important asset of an organization no matter what their age or educational background,” says Mazze, noting that this intangible asset does not appear on the balance sheet.

The widely acclaimed economist sees the major challenge companies face today is how to keep their employees satisfied. This goes beyond pay for performance, he notes.

The formula for retaining employees is quite simple, says Mazze. “To build a good workforce, the company must make work interesting, recognize the accomplishments of its employees, provide good working conditions, have a competitive compensation system and an opportunity for the employee to be promoted and continue to learn, he notes.

But, Mazze adds a major key to keeping employees satisfied is the culture of the company and the values of management. “It is not unusual for experienced workers to have five or six job changes in their career – some because of better opportunities and others because of down-sizing and right-sizing companies as a result of economic and financial factors,” he says.

AARP’s website (www.AARP.org/Work) provides useful information, tools and connections to an array of resources. This website includes a job search engine, a list of companies that recognize the value of experienced workers and recruit across diverse age groups, and tips for workers of all experience levels seeking employment or exploring new workplace options.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket Writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

The First of the Generation Xers Starting (Gulp) to hit the Big 50

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 10, 2016

With the New Year’s celebration on January 1, the first of America’s 62 million Generation Xers are on AARP’s radar screen as potential members. These individuals have hit a demographic milestone, turning age 50 this year.  Now, it’s time for the generation that is following the Baby Boomers, to begin thinking about their later years and what resources they will need if they are thrust into the role of caregiver for their parents and grandparents.

Demographers says that Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) is the middle generation, sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Millennials.  “As they grow older, it is important to acknowledge that they are having a different experience than their cohorts, and that they are more than just an unsung demographic who wore parachute pants and acid wash jeans,” says a recent AARP press statement, announcing the first arrival of this generation into their fifth decade.

The First Vanguard of Gen Xer’s Turn 50

AARP notes in 2015, 4.4 million Gen Xers hit the big-5-0.  This year another 4.1 million are expected to join the ranks of Americans over age 50, notes AARP, predicting that this generation will take on the role of challenging “outdated perceptions of aging and empower people to take control of their futures”

“AARP is excited to welcome Generation X to the 50-plus community and be a resource for them as they embrace their age and live the life that they want,” said Sami Hassanyeh, AARP Chief Digital Officer. “They face different challenges and have different goals than their predecessors, and deserve every opportunity to explore the possibilities that lie ahead.”

According to the Washington, D.C.-based AARP, the nation’s largest aging organization, Generation Xers carry far more fiscal responsibilities than previous generations have or even the next one, the Millennial Generation.  Now, in their 40s and 50s, this generation is financially supporting their children while being caregivers for their aging parents.  With life expectancy increasing Generation Xers must continue working to pay the bills, but like the aging baby boomers must rethink the concept of growing old and where they will put their time and energy in retirement.

“Though Generation Xers feel less financially secure than their parents in regards to retirement, they also plan to work longer and embrace new opportunities in this evolving life phase. Most people turning 50 today can expect to live another 30-plus years, and many are already taking steps towards increasing their longevity – 87% consider themselves in good health and 55% maintain a healthy diet. They are re-imagining this life transition and expect their future years to be more flexible and rewarding than ever before,” says the AARP statement.

Key Generation Xer’s Metrics

AARP Research provides a snap shoot the Generation Xers (www.aarp.org/research/topics/life/info-2015/generation-x-snapshots.html?cmp=RDRCT-GNXNST_DEC08_015).  As to diversity: sixty percent are white; 18 percent Hispanic/Latino; 12 percent are African and 7 percent Asian.  Most are married (64%) but one in five (19%) have never married.  Fifty percent of Generation Xers have children age 18 years or younger living at home while 67 percent of this generation have children of any age living at home.  This generation is well-educated with 35 percent receiving a Bachelor’s degree or higher (35%). Twenty seven percent have some college education.  The median income of this generation is $70,501.

Fifty six percent of this generation feels overwhelmed with financial burden (carrying an average debt of $111,000). Fifty five percent use the internet for on-line banking.

But, when thinking about retirement, 35 percent are confident they will have enough income to live the life they envision in retirement.  But, few Generation Xers are confident Medicare (34%) and Social Security (24%) will be available to them like it is for those currently receiving the retirement checks.

Looking at health, Generation Xers say that “the number one element for a good life is good health.”  They take responsibility for maintaining their health and well- being, too. Eighty six percent of this generation has health insurance.  Seventy two percent say that they trust their physicians the most for health information.

“From my perspective, this age group entering our membership demographic signals an opportunity for AARP to build our relevance in the lower end of the 50+ population,” said John Martin, Director of Communications at AARP Rhode Island. “When I meet these folks I get excited because more likely than not, they have been connected to the Internet for some time and are up to speed when it comes to technology and social media.

Time is on Their Side

“Generation X, the research shows, is quite forward-looking – as well as motivated — when it comes to working and living in one’s 50s with an eye toward health & fitness, retirement planning and having a say in making sure one’s community is heading in the right direction. The good news for Generation X, I would say, is that time is on their side. They can make changes during the final 15-20 years of their work life that will make everything after much better. So, when they embrace online resources and I can keep them current via email on issues relevant to the road ahead it is very exciting,” Martin added.

“I am pleasantly surprised when I meet people across Rhode Island who declare ‘now that I’m 50’ it’s time to join AARP. To me, what they are saying is that they get it,  that membership represents a transition that is all about fulfilling their aspirations and building confidence that they will live out their lives with independence and dignity.”

AARP is no longer the membership organization for just the Greatest Generation (1900 to 1924), the Silent Generation (1925 to 1944) and Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). It is fr Gen Xers (1965 to 1984), too, especially if they want to take control of the quality of life they will experience in their retirement years and beyond.

For more information about AARP, go to AARP.org.

 

 

 

 

Baby Boomers Already Making Reservations

 Newly-Released AARP survey details travel trends by generation next year — 2016

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 6, 2015

With the coming New Year, Baby Boomers have already begun to plan next year’s vacations.  A new AARP survey released last month gives a little insight into what America’s Boomers are us a glimpse of this generation’s travel trends (about 76 million strong who spend over $120 billion annually to travel), from destinations, to lodging and trip planning tools used.

“The vast majority of Baby Boomers are planning to drive, fly or set sail on leisure trips in 2016, with an average of 4 or 5 trips already in the works,” said Stephanie Miles, VP, Products & Platforms, AARP. “Boomers make up a large segment of the traveling public, and so it’s particularly important for the travel industry to be aware of what Boomers are looking for in their vacations going into 2016. This new survey finds that their travel desires often differ greatly from younger travelers.”

Key motivators for older travelers to take vacations are to spend time with family and friends (54%), to relax (42%) and to get away from the routines of everyday life (39%), note the researchers.  Millennials are more likely than any other generation to plan a trip to “go on an adventure.”

According to AARP’s Travel survey, released on November 24, a whopping 99 percent of Baby Boomers respondent say they will travel in 2016, about three-quarters have already chosen their destination(s).  About 12 percent who are planning on taking a domestic trip have already booked it in September.

Baby Boomers tend not to use online resources and mobile apps for planning and booking trips to the same degree as their younger generations will, note the survey findings.

For the traveling Boomer, the survey says that the most important items to bring on a trip are meds, comfortable shoes, a camera and sunglasses.  But these older travelers do not forget to bring a good book and emergency phone numbers, too

The survey findings indicate that while Boomers carefully watch their pocket books the cost of the trip is not the “deal breaker,” say the researchers.  More than half of Millennials and Gen Xers say that cost is a barrier to leisure travel, but only 45 percent of Boomers agree with these younger generations. Additionally, more than 6 in 10 Boomers say that higher airfares have had no impact on their personal travel plans.

International traveling “will be especially hot” next year for older travelers. About 32 percent of the survey respondents plan to be traveling overseas in 2016 with 29 percent scheduling these trip in the spring.  Europe attracts the interest followed by the Caribbean and Mexico (each 19 percent) for the older travelers who view these “bucket list” trips or “once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” say the researchers.

But America’s Boomers are also planning to take domestic trips next year on weekends and during the upcoming summer. The survey results indicate that nearly a third of the Boomers will take advantage of hot summer weather to make domestic trips, with 23 percent planning weekend getaways.  Twenty-six percent of the older respondents say they will take domestic multi-generational trips (with three or more generations traveling together) in 2016, but that’s down from 32 percent in 2015.

Boomers, heading off to warm U.S. destinations, will be packing their sun tan lotion, shorts and flip-flops when traveling in 2016.  Florida (19%) and Las Vegas (9%) will be the most popular domestic destinations for these older travelers.  Big cities like New York, Boston and Chicago also catch their attention. While hotels will be booked by a large majority, 30 percent plan to stay with family and friends.

When it comes to hotel lodging amenities, Boomers look forward to free Wi-Fi.  Forty-three percent say that when choosing a hotel, free Wi-Fi is key to their booking a room.  Eighty six percent of older travelers seeking rental homes also want this amenity. While roughly 4 in 10 Boomers stay at hotels or motels when they travel, Airbnb and VRBO are gaining in popularity: 1 in 10 Boomers are planning to use those services to rent a private residence instead of using a hotel on a 2016 trip.

The researchers say that during travel Boomers do not tend to linger in an airport terminal and are the least likely generation to take advantage of onsite airport amenities, expect for restaurants.

As to social media, the survey found that when on vacation about two-thirds of the respondents say they will not post to a social media site. About eight three percent will stay connected to “the outside world” by watching news on TV or online.

Finally, older workers continue to behave differently from those in other countries. Slightly half plan to use all of their vacation time next years. When on trips, one-third plan to bring work with them that ultimately will account for 10 percent of their vacation time.

AARP’s online survey was conducted September 17-28, 2015 among males and females 18 and older who had taken at least one trip 50 miles or more away from home, with a two-night stay, in the past two years.  The survey can be found at aarp.org/2016TravelTrends.

 

Freelance Economy Can Be Powerful Economic Engine

Published in Pawtucket Times on June 22, 2015

Last week, it took three days for Sign Painter Jayson M. Salvi to put the final touches on the façade of the Camera Werks on Hope St.   As he sat on the pavement printing the signage, passerbuyers would stop and chat, admiring his craft.

For the 41-year-old Salvi, his passion for sign painting began in high school, ultimately continuing in his eight year stint in the U.S. Navy.  Salvi says that he usually ended up painting logos and signs on doors wherever he was assigned.

With an honorable discharge from the Navy in 2000 and a degree in business administration he earned at Norfolk University while serving in the military, Salvi came to Providence to be near family.  He began his sign painting business at the former Providence-based Tazza Restaurant after an unsuccessful venture in the candle making business, followed by several retail jobs.  Word of mouth advertising about his artistic talent led to more freelance painting opportunities at the Trinity Brew House, RISD’s Second Life, a nonprofit student run recycling material center, and the Camera Werks, to name a few.

Working a full-time retail job pays for his health insurance, for him and his wife, Kate, a self employed photographer and card designer.     Salvi estimates that he pulls in around $30,000 a year from his freelancing.  “Try buying a Cadillac with that,” he says.  But in a blink of an eye he would leave retail forever to make a living from full-time sign painting, he says. “Self employed people do whatever they need to do to pay the bills to do the things they love to do,” he says.

Spotlight on Rhode Island Freelances

According to federal census data released last month, Salvi and his wife join over 73,700 sole proprietors in Rhode Island who earned a total of over $3.3 billion in annual income. These Ocean State residents are self-employed, sole proprietors, freelancers, independent contractors and non-employee small businesses, says Olon Reeder, of Olon Reeder Associates, a public relations consulting firm that represents self employed clients.  .

The federal census data, culled from 2013 sole proprietor income tax filings from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, indicate that the top work performed by Rhode Island’s self employed workers included Professional/Technical/Scientific services; Other Non-Governmental services; Real Estate; Construction; and Health and Social services, says Reeder.

Reeder, 56, states that despite an improving jobs market in Southern New England [the latest state unemployment numbers drop to 5.9 percent, the lowest since 2007], it’s still very difficult for many unemployed Rhode Islanders to get back to full-time work.  But, the Ocean State has been able to maintain stable job growth, in particular, the state’s freelance workforce, says the North Providence resident and businessman.

Reeder, who has been a public relations consultant for almost 28 years, notes that many sole proprietors active in Rhode Island are “baby boomers” aged 50 and over that are turning to freelance work full time because they were laid off from regular work or early retirees; are encoring into lifelong ambitions they feel are essential in the marketplace; or are working for themselves out of necessity due to long term unemployment.

Nationally, the latest Census Data figures report that for 2013 there were 23 million Americans working solo earning $1 trillion in receipts, that’s up from 2011 figures, which showed at that time there were only 22.5 million people who worked for themselves and collectively earned at that time $989.6 billion, says Reeder..

”The latest figures, from 2013, also show that Rhode Island’s sole proprietors had receipts of $3.3 billion.,” Reeder adds, noting that when compared to similar numbers from 2011, self employment increased by 700 jobs over the last three years (over 200 annually) and income went up by $2 million over the last three years (over $300 thousand annually).

Interestingly, next door in Massachusetts, self employment went dramatically down in the “Bay State,” as Federal figures indicated that only 263,500 freelance workers in 2013, compared to the 471,800 solo workers employed in 2011. Earnings for Massachusetts independents also fell in 2013, with only $15.2 million in receipts, compared to $24.4 million in 2011, he said.

“Finally, Rhode Island has something we do best when it comes to our self-employed workers,” he says, noting that the state now rates better than its next door neighbor. “It’s something we can boast about,” he says.

Self-Employed, an Economic Engine

State and local politicians tend to focus their energy on attracting large companies to the state [like 38 Studios], but tend to ignore the self-employed, charges Reeder, a long time tireless and passionate advocate for self-employed workers.  “The self employed are a powerhouse that can no longer be ignored and must be reckoned with,” he says.

“Rhode Island’s self employed are a best kept secret that need to be taken advantaged of to improve our state’s long tern economic development and quality of life,”  says Reeder.  “Very few businesses create over 200 jobs a year and pay per capita per sole proprietor an average of over $44,000 a year. This is how the freelance economy is changing our lives,” he says.

With the ending of this years’ legislative session, Reeder calls on lawmakers to look down the road to investing in state’s self-employed work force.  Usually the General Assembly tackles the tax code to make it more business-friendly for large corporations or targeted industries without considering providing incentives or tax incentives to the state’s self employed.

Like previous years, Reeder opposes any revisiting of placing fees or expansion of sales taxes on services provided by the self-employed.   “There must be a level playing field for all business,” he says, ‘everyone should be treated equally.”.

Reeder believes Rhode Island has become a leader in growing its free lance work force and this could just become a powerful economic engine to revitalize the state’s  sputtering economy.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

 

Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

             Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com